Latvian writer Vilis Kasims’ unsettling and compelling second book Lysergic Blues is composed of vivid “miniatures”, brief dreamlike or incisive flashes that illuminate some alternate version of Latvia or the narrator’s consciousness. While sometimes seemingly realistic, some are purely fantastical, with the narrator turning up for a date only to be led on a hike around his love interest’s room, an account of “hearing the sun singing” by a Riga suburb, and a terrifying village “vine ritual”, which proceeds in mystery but leaves “whitening bones”. Born in rural northern Vidzeme in 1986 to a Latvian father and a mother who had emigrated from Gagauzia (an autonomous region of Moldova where the dominant languages are the Turkic language Gagauz, and Russian), Kasims moved to the capital as a teenager, then lived in Barcelona and London before returning to Riga several years ago. He works as a translator from Catalan, Russian and English, and for Latvian Literature, the body in charge of promoting Latvian-language fiction and poetry in translation.
Kasims’ broad and unusual viewpoint feeds into his portrayal, however offbeat, of the characters and scenes portrayed. There are glimpses into Latvian workers elsewhere in Europe, relationships where neither really speaks the other’s language, and the “transition years” of the early to mid ’90s, when capitalism came to Latvia, bringing new products and new perspectives but also instability and chaos to many rural communities. Deep Baltic presents five of Kasims’ miniatures, along with an interview conducted in Riga by Will Mawhood.
We were born and raised in grey Soviet housing blocks, where in the stairwells was the stink of piss and some prone body always calling after us that we really wouldn’t get anywhere, that we shouldn’t even try. All it took was to stop even for a moment to listen or answer and he would right away perch on our shoulders and stay there the whole way to school, moaning about the potholes in the roads, and the government’s broken promises, and the price of medicine, and the pensions, the pensions!
At school we threw him behind the cupboard at the back of the classroom, by the snow-covered jackets and spattered boots, but his voice kept on mutely howling at the backs of our heads while we tried to get the hang of writing a business plan and learn about the stirrings of romanticism in Latvian literature.
By the final bell, he had regained his strength enough to run alongside us as we went on to work, pointing at the cheerful people in the windows of the cafes in the centre. They laughed and winked, as if they really had found sanctuary there. Do you remember how some of us believed it, and went in through the half-open doors, hoping to lose ourselves in the window-dressings just like those revellers? “Look how happy they are” the stairwell guy shouted in our ears, driving the rest of us to escape too, to the streets of England, the grass of Zaļupe, the rungs of the corporate ladder.
But I understood well why at one point your strength ran out, and you had power only to open the door of the nearest block of flats and collapse behind it. How could it be otherwise when at every step, with every breath in and out, the moans of the weight you’re dragging along continue to resound. On the streets people still keep on their feet, but it’s enough just to look at their faces, their tightly gritted teeth and furrowed brows, to see that they are all trying as hard as they can not to look at the grimy old man, who still now has them caught by the throat with his yellowed teeth and nails.
I tell you all this only so you’re not frightened when tomorrow or the day after you open your eyes and some stranger is looking from the stairs in incomprehension at you, at us. Remember, he won’t do anything bad, only try to flee away over the years and borders. Who knows but how far he gets is how far we ourselves will get.
My life truly started with colours, with satellite television, which appeared in our housing block during the transition years. Every day, when my parents went off to work, I would go over to my uncle’s flat, where my grandmother lived, and sit myself down cross-legged half a metre from the TV, to gaze upwards open-mouthed and let the MTV clips colour in my face. They didn’t show us anything else on working days – only rap and R&B with girls’ moving hips, gold chains and big foreign cars, or relatively alternative pop music with narcotically smiling singers. But the music really wasn’t important at all, the main thing was the fingers of colour, which gently preened my brain, taken over by an until then unnoticed itch. And I smiled back at them, turning my back to the fading Soviet wallpaper.
Even the flaming maple trees in autumn couldn’t compete with the television’s synthetic abundance, which gradually, over the years that followed, reached Latvian channels too. The fields and forests retreated before it, acknowledging the superiority of music, cartoons and TV shows. What was the point of scrumping apples, what was the point of pelting passing Ladas with puffballs, what was the point of doing anything at all – in my head whispered the newsreader – if nothing anyway could beat a half-hour with the ninja turtles.
So could have begun a life overlaid with a rising tide of sadness, but just in time I managed to climb inside the television. It turned out that all it took was to close your eyes and call yourself Michelangelo for the hoe in your hands to turn into nunchucks, and for the Shredder to appear on the barn roof. I told my friends about these fights and they replied with their own, and so we joined forces to quench our thirst for colour in endless adventures in the meadow by the potato field.
Sometimes this world did become dimmer and tried to hide itself, but every time it returned again in the end, either between the pages of books or in the foliage of trees, or at the unlit crossroads of consciousness. I couldn’t even use up all my colours anymore, and they started to build and build, until they began to push out through my eyes, my mouth, my fingers, and then finally poured out in a shower of words whenever someone simply asked me about yesterday or tomorrow, about what I had seen, what I had heard, what I had experienced, after which with flushed cheeks and darkened pupils I would wander off back to the emptiness between words, to stand there in complete readiness with pen in hand, waiting for the moment when at least a few of our lives would blossom in MTV colours and I would not need to write the truth.
A Few of Our Lives
That evening I was by myself in the quiet of the house, and so I climbed up to the loft, sat down with my back against the stacks of books and took the radio in my lap, trying to find the transmission which some time long ago, in childhood, you had released onto the airwaves. I didn’t know the megahertz band, didn’t know how it could have survived on the radiowaves at all, but I knew you, and so I hoped that I would succeed in turning up the frequency on which you had once broadcast yourself.
At the beginning, all that could be heard in the attic was white noise. Having spent some moments aimlessly moving the dial back and forth, I finally brought it back to the very start and began to slowly steer it forward, listening closely to every whisper that from time to time broke through the hiss.
For a minute and a half there was nothing, but then it seemed that I heard your mother’s voice. Straight away my fingers stopped, and I unintentionally tensed my hand muscles too, as if otherwise the frequencies would have continued to slide forwards. She was saying something about remembering, and I opened my eyes to see you again here, in Zaļupe, on a street which the loudly hissing autumn wind was blustering along, to see how you are looking up to your mother’s red-and-white scarf, and you answer that this moment, this you certainly will remember. Your mother smiles at the setting sun and the background of reddening leaves and starts to continue with what she was saying, but her words are smothered by the wind. I tried to listen, to catch something anyway, but it was already too late, I was back in the loft, by myself again, in my lap the radio, which now was relaying only the most ordinary white noise – that background music of the Universe, in which all of us together are alloted just one tiny tiny note.
I sat like that for a moment in the cold with hunched shoulders, then pushed up my glasses, which had slid down, and with pinched lips started to turn the dial again. First I turned it back a little, but then realising that I wouldn’t be able to get back what I had heard before, I began again to make my way forward through the frequency oceans.
And I was rewarded again: at one moment the hissing started to become weaker, then weaker and weaker, then through it all the noise of a bar became audible, with your voice among others (or maybe you were someone else altogether). We had met after an interval of several months, during which the initial interest had waned to a superficial correspondence, and you told me how tough it was to combine work with studies, how in the evenings you dragged yourself home with a totally empty but still endlessly heavy head and were just the same in the morning when you stretched for a new day, where there was no place or time for thoughts, dreams, anything at all that had once given you life, how you no longer remembered what you had eaten for breakfast, what and why you were yesterday. I listened just like now, at the same time gazing as in the sky behind you another Moon rose and set, but I didn’t say anything about that so as not to interrupt you, so that you’d have time to say what you wanted to say before your words turned into that same white radio noise, which again soughed beneath my sweaty fingers, and you were extinguished, just the same as all those other once-known voices.
I lost my self-control and started to turn the dial forwards without my earlier care, letting it slide over the laughs and sobs heard somewhere in the distance, and the words, the words, the words. “I would not want to remember it as just one more…” at one point you tried to say, you or maybe another you altogether, but the hissing drowned you out before the words could revive themselves from those unconvincing memories that can live only in the radio.
I didn’t find your radio programme either, but I stayed here, in the loft. Here I at least had this white Universe noise with you, with all of you, all of us, here I didn’t have to think about myself, here I could let the hissing fill my head, weave us together and lift us through the chinks in the wooden beams, outside, into the garden, where it had already started to snow. The big, white flakes there were slowly, carefully burying us in apple-tree branches, where we could stay for a moment, for a day or a week, to be more than those words spoken long ago and melting in the memory. There, in the snow, we could be together again.
Telephone Conversation, 1994
“Hi! Listen… I’ll get straight to it, otherwise I will never say it. We have to split up.”
“Yes… I know, I know, last week I promised to think about everything, get myself sorted out, but I don’t see a future for us. I simply don’t see it.”
“Uh-huh… No, well, crazy, of course. It just seems to me that before splitting up it would be good to at least get to know each other.”
“Wait, you’re not Aivars?!”
“No, not at all. But now it’s really getting interesting for me, so please go on, go on.”
“I’m very sorry, probably I pressed the wrong number when dialling. I’m really very sorry. What a mistake!”
“You can consider this a dress rehearsal. Really, no problem, you can just tell me what’s happened with you there. Maybe it will make it better. Anyway, I don’t know you – I won’t tell anyone.”
“Well, I don’t know, to a stranger like that…”
“My name is Zigmārs. See, I’m not a stranger anymore.”
“I’m Maija. All in all, I really should go over it all with someone. I can’t bring myself to tell my family about it so soon, and in the last few years my friends have a bit kind of disappeared… We’ve been so completely sunk in one another’s lives. And not only arguing, you understand? We would go to films, to museums. Really I more dragged him to those places, because Aivars preferred getting out of Riga, to mess around in wild nature.”
“I think that you really have to make use of the advantages of the city. I moved to Riga three years ago myself. For the moment I’m still not fed up with it, and I can’t imagine it happening either. There’s always some event going on. I’m curious to know what you think about jazz.”
“Yes, I like it too, although I haven’t managed to listen to much, especially live. Aivars considers it to be just noise. But, well, I really wasn’t thinking about musical taste or anything like that. More some kind of general openness to new sensations or…”
“This kind of clicking in a relationship depends on all kinds of little things. I had a similar misfortune six months or so ago. My girlfriend and I split up, and I still feel weird about it. I don’t understand how on earth to plan something for the future, or if there’s any point to it at all. Then there’s also the fact that I see lots of interesting things but don’t have anyone to tell about them. That’s probably what I miss the most.”
“You must be joking now. If there’s something good to talk about, you will find women to listen. Girls in general really like these kind of sincere heart-to-heart talks.”
“Unfortunately experience has shown me that it’s by no means true for all. You’re probably judging based on yourself.”
“But you should try it! For example, tell me something now.”
“Oh, I can hardly do it on the telephone. It would be better in person. What are you doing, say, this Saturday afternoon? I’ll be in the centre, and I will have some free time. We could go somewhere, maybe simply for a walk.”
“This Saturday? No, I probably won’t be able to do that at all, I promised I’d go to my parents, I have to help look after my nephew. My brother and his wife have gone on holiday.”
“Really? Well, I understand, then maybe some other time.”
“You said that somehow… Did you have something specific in mind?”
“On the whole not really but… well, sometime we’ll definitely call each other up again and then we will think of something”
“No, I mean, listen, that won’t do! OK, Saturday doesn’t work for me, but you could at least offer some other option, couldn’t you?”
“I just don’t want to intrude.”
“That wouldn’t be any kind of intrusion, but just proper, manly, respectful behaviour…”
“I’m sorry, but I really didn’t think that I would need to demonstrate my masculinity, or prove something to you.”
“Then what were you trying to do before with those stories of yours about jazz and the beauty of the city? First of all, yes, yes, then no, excuse me, I don’t want to intrude. That just won’t do! It’s no wonder that you have only yourself to tell the day’s events to.”
“Aha, no, that wasn’t nice, that definitely wasn’t nice. I suggest you think more about your own behaviour, instead of reprimanding others. Maybe then this Aivars of yours wouldn’t be wanting so much to go to the countryside, further away from you.”
“And so now the insults begin… Look how quickly the truth comes out! No, I mean, of course not everything is ideal with Aivars, but he at least behaves like a human being.”
“And yet you called to say farewell to him.”
“No, that’s what I’ll now say to you. Farewell, Zigmārs, and thank you for reminding me that it could be much worse.”
In the middle of the courtyard after the explosion, the fallen shards shone dully in the electric light of the bar. Together with the other hushed patrons, I turned away from the television to look at the white dog who had started to sniff around the glass. Having run his tongue over his nose a couple more times, he then lifted his eyes, growling, to the headless man in front of him. He was leaning down to stroke him, as though it was the animal who needed calming, not he himself. One shard had stuck in his throat. It stretched up slantwise like a window open in winter for ventilation.
I looked at his dark, empty throat, just as in childhood I had looked at the foreign cars that appeared on the streets of Zaļupe soon after they were asphalted and sped past us as we played with stones by the farm gates, still not suspecting that we had been tugged into the modern age, into this century and the next one, that this would be the world where we would have to, where we would be forced to live. That was why that evening I remembered about you and called you up to ask how you were feeling now, in the 21st century. You answered that I should drink less and hung up, possibly busy with work. Your voice sounded like the protagonist of a black-and-white film, and I turned back to the television so as not to bother the man.
Before that I only noticed that the dog in the courtyard had cheerfully placed his paws on your shoulders, and was lapping paraffin from the blown-out lamps.
Taken from the collection Lizergīnblūzs published by Orbita Press. Translated from Latvian by Will Mawhood.
I wanted to begin by asking about how you would describe the pieces in general. I know you’ve referred to them as miniatures. They’re very varied in theme – I mean, most of them are recognisably set in Latvia; some are in Zaļupe, which we can talk a bit more about in a moment; some are in Riga, but there are some that are quite realistic, some that are very kind of psychedelic in feel, some that almost have a bit of folk horror vibe – I was thinking of “The Smile of Home” (Māju smaids), it has that air a little bit. Is there anything you feel that brings them together overall or were they just a number of stories you’d written that you wanted to put in a collection?
I’ll call them miniatures here as well just to make things simpler – I think the English term is flash fiction, but in Latvian we would call them “miniatūras”, so that’s what I’m sticking with.
Some of them were written years ago when I had this thing where I would say “OK, for a month I’m going to write a short piece every day”. And sometimes they would be very realistic, a scene from memory, some of them would be random dream scenes, some of them would develop later in the story. But that was when I started writing these very short pieces. That was I think initially 15 years ago. Then I kind of left them for a while, I wrote my first novel (The Big World – “Lielā pasaule”), then I was writing a second novel which didn’t really go anywhere. Then, it was by the end of my stay in Barcelona, I felt – OK, now I’m moving back to Latvia. I have this bloody novel that I’ve been working on on and off for the last four years; it’s getting on my nerves. And I have all of these little sketches, all these notes for myself that I’ve filled notebooks with, and I’d rather do something with them.
So then I kind of sat down and fleshed out these sketches that I had, and then you know the way it goes is that you start writing in a certain voice, certain style or certain form and you get more and more ideas for these kinds of things. Then I realised there was the potential for a collection. Then for a while when I had written down all the ideas and sketches that I had noted down, I started almost randomly generating ideas. There are a couple of pieces in the collection that started off as exercises in doing a piece in a certain style or based on whatever – so the ideas and the inspiration come from all kinds of places. But then when I was working with the editor, Arvis Kolmanis, we had these very disparate pieces, and the biggest question was how to bring them together, how to make a coherent, cohesive whole. And it was actually Kolmanis who suggested focusing on more personal pieces. So we had twice as many pieces as ended up in the collection, and the main reason or the main point that we tried to have in common was to have this personal, melancholy, dreamy thing going through it. So we left out a couple of pieces that actually had almost the best reception from readers just because they didn’t fit the theme, the vibe.
Going back to the original question, they are short-form stories that speak about different experiences in my life or the lives of others, whether real or imagined people. The working title was “A Few of Our Lives”, like one of the stories in the collection, but I ended up going out with “Lysergic Blues”.
Yeah, they seem to have a unity of approach in some ways, even if not a unity of theme or location.
The one that grabbed me first when I was reading the book, where I felt I really wanted to translate it or find out more about it was “In Zaļupe”, which I guess has that same thing I was trying to describe, starting off in a very identifiable place and time and by the end has these slightly magical realist touches – maybe less than other stories, but I think you understand what I mean. And you’ve spoken a little bit about this period, the early ‘90s in Latvia, because I read your interview you did in Punctum with [poet] Lauris Veips. There was a quote – I think it was an interesting thing that you said that I’d like you to expand on if you could and I think it’s related to that story as well:
“It’s very interesting to me, that feeling about the point where different centuries collide. Because when I was growing up, there really was in many ways a 19th-century feeling. I felt like Valdis’s Children of Staburags [a classic Latvian novel set in the countryside, published 1895] was really a very modern book. Those were really all the things that I did with my friends. Some years later I went with my mum to work to sneak onto the internet, and I came into contact with the world of games and forums.”
So I was wondering if you could say a bit more about that – that contrast and why it fascinates you.
I think it started fascinating me, or my attention was drawn to it when I moved to Riga, because I moved to Riga when I was 15, so quite early. And when I first moved to Riga, I was so ingrained in this village mindset that for the first day I was greeting people in the street. I went with my brother to a shop and I was saying “hello, hello” to everyone passing by. Because that’s what you do in a village – otherwise you’re very impolite. That was a huge culture shock – probably more so than moving to the UK or to Spain – moving from a village to a capital city, where nobody knows anybody. Where it’s not the done thing that you go to your neighbour’s to watch TV, or that neighbours come to your place for birthdays or whatever else. You don’t share resources, you don’t say “well I don’t have any flour at the moment so I’ll just go and ask my neighbour if they have something”.
So that’s part of it, and the other part is this experience growing up, doing work in the fields day-to-day. We had chickens, we had geese, we had pigs. We didn’t have a massive farm or anything, but still there was always something to do every day, and, you know, as a ten-year-old, twelve-year-old, fourteen-year-old you want to escape that – that’s the last thing you want to do. And so for me the escape was the virtual world, which in the late ‘90s was still something very new in Latvia especially. That’s where I ended up learning English, through trying to find my way around forums and video games.
But the second story in the book, which you translated, the one about watching MTV (“In Zaļupe”), that kind of feels key to the collection to me as well. Because that’s the duality of being kids in a village, almost all the time playing with rocks in the street – and you then go home and you have MTV, you have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you have all this pop culture that feels like it’s come from another world, that feels like it’s beamed from an alien planet directly into your living room. And I don’t think I’ve ever managed to bring these two parts of my childhood, of myself together.
And I guess that’s something that for someone your age and maybe a few years either side would be particularly strong. It’s probably less so for people who are teenagers now, or were teenagers in the 1980s, for example.
Yeah, for sure, and when I would go back to my village after I had moved away – and I would go back quite regularly, every couple of weeks, every month, because there was work in the fields that needed to be done, and I wasn’t able to be self-sufficient living in Riga. And there I started seeing more and more the divide, the difference between daily life that’s focused around the needs of other living beings, including plants and including whatever you grow in the fields, and chickens and pigs. You can’t ignore that; you just have to take care of them. And life in the city, which is much more human-centric and self-centric in a way. And I think that was what struck me first when I started going back and forth from Riga to Ungurpils, my village. Then over the years I started noticing changes in Ungurpils as well: how the communal feeling that was there in the ‘90s wasn’t really around anymore. I think partly because people got better off, and there started being more of a class divide, I guess you could say, or rather a divide between haves and have-nots. Whereas in the early ‘90s, it did feel more like we were all in the same boat, which was in a storm in the ‘90s because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the sudden wild capitalism that we had.
Then once the different groups of people stratified and started becoming more different, people tended to stay in their own homes more, and life in Ungurpils became more like life in Riga. Because fewer and fewer people had any kinds of farm animals or fields. Life also became more people-centric, more self-centric.
And related to that, one of the other things that unify a lot of the stories is the fact that they’re set in this place Zaļupe, which as I understand isn’t a real place – although it sounds like it could be [in Latvia]. Did you intend that location to stand for anything in particular or did you just like the fact of having a reference point to unite a lot of different pieces?
It’s more the latter, because I had quite a lot of these stories written already when I first got the idea for Zaļupe as a kind of reference point. It came when I was on a work trip in Paris and I was going back to the hotel and writing; I had a couple of ideas for a small cycle of miniatures – I don’t think any of these stories are in the final collection – but they were centred around a place that I ended up calling Zaļupe. It’s a bit of a silly pun really, because there’s a place called Zilupe [literally “blue river”] in the east of Latvia, and Zaļupe [literally “green river”] was kind of a drug reference, for weed. And I thought it sounded like a real place, and that was the main thing for me: to have something that sounds like a real place.
Then I started weaving it into other stories, sometimes changing the stories to make space for Zaļupe. And in this novella I’m finishing now, Zaļupe reappears, but as a neighbouring village to the village where part of the novella is set. So I like the idea of having an imaginary world that slowly builds up book by book.
And you mentioned the drug reference – the influence of drugs is quite obvious, on some of the stories more than others. I was wondering if there were any particular writers you took inspiration from, because there’s certain things it reminds me of at certain points but… Or whether things were mostly drawn from your own experiences?
The actual stories were mostly… well, I can’t say mostly drawn from experience because some of the ones people think are more realistic are totally invented or riffing off something else. There’s one story (“The Old Year” – Vecais gads) which is about a party somewhere, and the party goes off the rails and the guy’s missing his ex who he’s recently split up with, and people are doing drugs in the background and he just doesn’t feel like he belongs there – that was all kind of a riff off Dylan’s song “Visions of Johanna”, which is also about a weird party like that. Dylan is one of the touchstones for the more druggy stories. And the other touchstone is Richard Brautigan, the American beat hippie writer.
One of the people I had written down that I was going to mention, that’s well-timed (laughs).
I used to translate him and I edited a book that came out in Latvian, Trout Fishing in America. The other famous drug-centred or -influenced authors like Kerouac, William Burroughs, whatever, they haven’t left much of a mark on me – I’ve read them, but they never left a mark. It was more Brautigan and then a lot of psychedelic music that was obviously heavily drug-influenced.
Yes, it’s interesting that one of the people I wrote down was Brautigan – the kind of rapid shifts from being lifelike to being very wildly fantastical and druggy were very reminiscent of that book you mentioned. At certain points it reminded me slightly of Bruno Schulz – not the style, but certain elements. I don’t know if that makes sense.
It does – and I think it was while I was writing the book that I read Bruno Schulz’s Cinnamon Shops. He’s one of those authors that you read and you want to write like them, or you want to write at least something like them. So that might have seeped in, that kind of dreamlike atmosphere where you’re not sure what is real and what isn’t real.
I had a feeling that, like I said, even though there’s these very surreal touches and certain parts are obviously completely in a non-realistic world entirely, but it’s very recognisably Latvia, which I found quite interesting. I’m not sure I could put it into words, but having spent a lot of time in this country as an outsider, there were lots of things where I just felt “that is definitely Latvian” and not – for example, Lithuanian, if that makes sense.
One thing I wondered if there was a project of finding surreal or psychedelic or however you want to describe it elements of life in the countryside or Latvian life. Certain things like the story I mentioned before, and another quote I wrote down from the story itself titled “Lysergic Blues (Lizergīnblūzs)”. This is from one of the stories that is very drug-influenced.
“He already seemed intoxicated from the scent of the rainbow. In it there really was something of childhood corncobs at five storeys high, of the heady life in a sheep’s underbelly, of the endless eternal love.”
Does that make sense? There’s kind of weird qualities in life in the countryside.
That’s definitely something that fascinates me, or fascinated me when I was writing that. This particular story, that was one of the stories I wrote ten or fifteen years ago now, and I obviously edited it a lot to both kind of fit the prose and to just plain improve it. But, yeah, it’s probably the clearest psychedelic or drug-related story. For a long time I felt that there were a group of friends who were interested in psychedelics and exploring different substances, and sooner or later I think everyone who’s in that kind of environment, they begin to feel that things are beginning to go off the rails with, if not yourself, then some of your friends. So that happened. And then the realistic cultural touches, that kind of longing tends to be for a time when I didn’t have any of that other outside influence.
And these particular influences of corn and sheep, they’re directly lifted – not from Latvia actually, but from Gagauzia, where I spent some summers as a child. And that felt like another world to me entirely – well, because it was very different. In a way, more at the time of writing this particular story, I felt a longing, not so much for a generic childhood but specifically for some times in Gagauzia because I felt at some point in my life like I’m always longing for, in a way, simply for more sun, for more warmth, which in Latvia is sometimes hard to come by.
Well, that was something I wanted to ask about as well, because I guess it’s something that’s relatively unusual in the Latvian countryside: I mean the fact that, I remember from our previous conversations, you grew up speaking both Latvian and Russian natively, but I don’t think you have direct Russian heritage.
So I guess that would give you quite an unusual perspective, having access to this very different part of the world.
In the village in the first 15 years of my life that didn’t seem to be a factor at all. So there were three boys my age in the village, and I think three of us were of mixed ethnicity and one was ethnic Russian, and we were just hanging out, speaking mostly Latvian, sometimes Russian – more Russian when we went into each other’s homes, speaking with their parents and stuff. But I never really thought in terms of ethnic belonging until I moved to Riga, where it seemed like it was an either/or kind of situation at the time – either you were Latvian or Russian. And “Russian” in Latvia, as you know, tends to encompass Russian-speaking people, whether Ukrainians – probably less so now – Belarusians, even Moldovans or people who are not native Russian-speakers but end up speaking Russian as a common language in Riga.
It was especially interesting when I started studying at university, because there it was clearly visible how people divided into groups of Latvian-speakers and Russian-speakers, and I kind of drifted in between – ended up mostly sitting with Latvian-speakers, but, yes, it was very noticeable how divided society was. Even people of my age, they were born in the Soviet Union, but they grew up all their conscious life in independent Latvia and still that division was quite strong. I feel that now it is becoming less so with Russian-speakers born 15, 20 years ago: they are integrated better into Latvian society than people my age, but I guess it’s still there.
Yes, it’s interesting. Just kind of anecdotally, but I’ve noticed that in these rural areas when you meet Russian-speakers, they are more integrated in a sense, or they feel more Latvian. But it’s probably just that you’re in such a minority, that you have to fit in, otherwise you’re just by yourself.
I feel like there’s a big difference whether there’s 10-20% of minority language-speaking people or if it’s 40-50% like in Riga. Because if there’s an even divide, you can’t really talk about a minority language – you can talk about a language that has minority status and is maybe not treated equally in terms of laws, for obvious and clear reasons. But it’s easy to form your own community where you don’t really need to interact with Latvians.
Whereas in the villages, you know, if a Latvian school is the only one nearby, or a Latvian kindergarten is the only kindergarten in the area, there’s really no way you can avoid learning Latvian.
A couple more questions. Speaking a little about the rural-urban divide – well, what I would call the rural-urban divide in other countries, but in Latvia, I feel it’s really the rural-Riga divide that would be more accurate. I don’t know if you’d agree with that.
In general I would agree with that, yes. There are a couple of other bigger cities that are seen as something separate, like – I can talk more about Vidzeme, but like Valmiera, Cēsis. Although things are a bit different from Riga, I guess there’s still rural influence, as in people often have mazdārziņi, these allotment gardens. And sometimes they live on the outskirts and they have a big yard and a field, and they might have some chickens there as well, which doesn’t really happen in Riga, even though people do have these allotments, but it’s much more clearly just a hobby where people just grow five heads of garlic.
It’s difficult to define isn’t it, where someone falls. But I guess what I wanted to say with that is that you’ve had the experience of living in a very small village in northern Vidzeme (Ungurpils); now you live in Riga, you’ve lived in other places abroad. It feels like that’s still the defining divide in Latvian society, apart from the ethnic one, and I felt that was shown as well in the election results [parliamentary elections in October 2022] in certain respects. Do you feel these are two groups in society that can talk to each other?
It probably depends on the actual geographic location of the conversation. In the countryside, when you speak to people, you will hear the refrain “the guys in Riga, the MPs in Riga, what do they know about how people live here?”. Which I think is the case in most countries – even in the UK with London.
And obviously it’s the same here: people feel that Riga is a world of its own, that doesn’t really care about anything more than 30 kilometres away, more than Olaine. And it is in large part true. People in Riga can say, I’m going to lauki [“countryside” in Latvian], meaning they’re going to Limbaži or Tukums or whatever, that are towns and cities [nearby].
Yeah. And whether they can communicate in Riga: I feel they can understand each other maybe better than ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians, but there’s always a bit of a divide.
Coming from the countryside, you always suspect, after you’ve lived in Riga for a while and you have encountered that, that Rigans might see you as – not necessarily inferior, but that this experience of having grown up in Riga is something that sets them apart. And I know people who go to Riga specifically with the intention to integrate, to almost assimilate, but I feel like it’s hard to lose that upbringing. Like there was a guy from near my village who moved to Riga before me, because his parents moved to Riga when he was 12, and I emailed him when I first got my email set up, and I found up his email somehow. And I emailed him to find out if he wanted to meet up, and he said “no, I don’t want anything to do with Ungurpils, with that part of the world where not even nettles grow”.
So I feel like there are people who arrive in Riga with the specific intention to assimilate themselves here. But I think precisely this approach, this kind of mindset and hate or distaste for part of their childhood inevitably sets them apart as well.
Is there anyone you feel is doing something similar in the Latvian literary scene at the moment? I was slightly reminded when reading your book of the work of Svens Kuzmins, in particular the stories in Hohma – this kind of constrained small-town madness, I don’t know how to describe it. But yours is definitely not as satirical, it’s a bit more abstract. But is there anyone you feel is on the same wavelength in that sense? I don’t know if that’s a good comparison but it occurred to me.
I mean, I really like Svens’ works. I can’t say we’re good friends, but we’re friends – I’m meeting him tomorrow actually for drinks. But I think he comes to it from a slightly different perspective. For one, he is from a bigger town, from Rēzekne, and with that comes all the Latgale experience as well. And he comes from an artists’ family, so he has this artistic background and bohemian childhood, whereas my father was an electrician. So I come from – not necessarily the working class, because in the Soviet era the class system was very different. But we come from kind of different mindsets.
But in his work there’s also this clash between modernity and a more rural experience, and he goes for a bit more satire, irony, whereas I tend to go for more of a dreamlike, magical realism approach.
Yes, I wanted to say: it’s not the same style, but I feel you’re dealing with some of the same themes.
For sure, there are similar themes. In prose, I’m not sure if there are people focusing on similar themes or even style. For whatever reason, even though there are authors who have come from a smaller rural upbringing and move to Riga, I guess for them, for whatever reason, it’s not as striking as it was for me.
Like Ilze Jansone is another example – and she’s the editor of my upcoming novella so we talked quite a bit about that. And for her, it doesn’t seem to be as important as it was for me. She’s from near Mērsrags in Kurzeme.
And then in poetry, I felt a kind of common language with Lauris Veips; that’s why we did the interview in Punctum you mentioned. Because he comes from Alūksne, which again is a town rather than a village, but my father comes from a village near Alūksne, and Lauris also has had the psychedelic phase in his writing, and that kind of brought us together, even though in his poetry – it’s less dreamlike, it’s more tongue-in-cheek, more spiritual.
For whatever reason, there’s been a strong vein of surreal or magical realist or dreamy writing in Latvian in the past decade: [Kristīne] Ulberga is sometimes using the same kind of register, as is Laima Muktupāvela – now Laima Kota – but I don’t feel we’re really the same generation. We’re talking about different eras, different times, different perspectives. But I think Latvia is a small enough country that prose writers in particular, who don’t tend to hang out as much together as maybe poets do… I think Svens Kuzmins would say the same thing – that he doesn’t feel there’s anyone really doing the same kind of thing as he is – so would Ilze Jansone or Inga Žolūde or Andris Kuprišs. It’s just the way it is in a smaller scene.
You maintain one of the more idiosyncratic and entertaining accounts in the Latvian Twittersphere, posting pithy and mildly surreal observations and aphorisms. It seems to complement your fiction in a strange way, while not being connected to it in any direct way. Do you think Twitter – or other social media platforms – can offer something beyond simple distraction to fiction writers?
I think I actually started posting on Twitter more while writing the Lysergic Blues stories as an outlet for all the unrelated thoughts, ideas and phrases that kept popping up – as they do once you immerse yourself in that kind of fragmented writing. It feels a bit weird that it kind of became its own thing and now there are more people reading these ramblings than my actual literary writing, but I’m happy to have found this space where I can throw my random thoughts out there and see that somebody is enjoying them. While there are quite a few people who have said that they bought my books after enjoying my tweets, I mostly see it as a separate thing. On the other hand, the impetus for writing might be similar in both cases – you want to get your thoughts and words out there and hope they stick with some people. It is much more ephemeral writing however, due to the nature of the platform, which helps me not take myself too seriously and also makes my “literary” prose more focused as I have another place to write down sentences that sound good or funny on their own but are only vaguely related to the actual story. Or at least I would like to hope so.
All images credit – Vilis Kasims unless otherwise specified
© Deep Baltic 2022. All rights reserved.
Like what Deep Baltic does? Please consider making a monthly donation – help support our writers and in-depth coverage of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Find out more at our Patreon page.